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How the U.S. President Works

Life After the Presidency

President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, Habitat for Humanity
Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn join volunteers for Habitat for Humanity's Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4, 2010. Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

There are three ways a president can leave office mid-term: death, resignation or impeachment. Eight presidents have died in office. Four of these presidents, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John Kennedy, were assassinated (five other sitting presidents have survived assassination attempts). Of all presidents, William Henry Harrison had the shortest administration; he died of pneumonia one month after his inauguration.

Only one president, Richard Nixon, has resigned. Three presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. None of the three was convicted. Johnson escaped Senate conviction by one vote, but Clinton and Trump were found not guilty in the Senate by wider margins.

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Most presidents fulfill one or two terms and are either defeated in re-election or retire. So what's life like for a person who's been the leader of the free world? Generally, it's good. Some presidents retire to a life outside of the public eye. Many have published their memoirs. Others use the prominence afforded by the presidency to continue or even improve their work. Jimmy Carter, after leading an unpopular single-term administration, went on to create what many agree is the most successful post-presidency. The former president established the Carter Center, a human rights organization, and became heavily involved with Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes for the poor.

For most of U.S history, presidents have been given a pat on the back on their way out and that's about it. That changed in 1958, when Congress passed the Former Presidents Act. This law gave a departing president an annual pension of $25,000 a year under the original bill. Since then, the amount has been increased to the same as a Cabinet member, about $161,000 per year. The government also provides a former president funding to support an office and staff for four-and-a-half years.

During his second term, President Franklin Roosevelt had an archive for the personal papers and mementoes he'd accumulated during his time in office. Since a president can't accept personal gifts during office, any tokens presented by foreign heads of state and other dignitaries and citizens belong to the American people. To continue this chain of custody, Roosevelt established his presidential library in 1941. This tradition was carried on by Harry Truman, under whose administration Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act. This law created the Presidential Library System, a part of the National Archives, which oversees the 14 presidential libraries currently in existence. It became customary for a presidential library to be built to house the effects of the outgoing administration and all modern presidents have a presidential library. Just before his death in 1962, Roosevelt's predecessor, President Herbert Hoover, saw a presidential library built for his administration.

Not all presidents leave public life after the White House. President William Taft went on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, appointed by President Warren Harding eight years after Taft left office. Taft preferred the judicial over the executive branch: "I don't remember that I ever was President," he once wrote [source: White House]. Other presidents have been appointed or elected to various positions. After being impeached, Andrew Johnson was elected as a senator for Tennessee, while John Tyler served in the Confederate House of Representatives more than a decade after leaving the White House [sources: United States Senate, White House].

"There is nothing more pathetic in life than a former president," President John Quincy Adams once said. That, like all other aspects of the American presidency, has evolved and changed, all due to the decisions made by the people who've held the office.

Originally Published: Oct 21, 2008

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